These days autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and assisted reproduction are both medical issues that frequently wind up in the media and are becoming ever more commonplace in our lives. The prevalence of ASD in U.S. children aged 6 to 17 years is estimated to be as high as 1 in 50 from recent data. While assisted reproduction is a broad term, three of the more well-known techniques (in vitro fertilization, gamete intrafallopian transfer, and zygote intrafallopian transfer) accounted for 163,038 assisted reproduction cycles resulting in 47,090 live births in 2011.
Not only are both issues more and more common, but at times both issues have been lightning rods of controversy. Not surprisingly then – and in the context of ASD being a highly genetic disorder that is also linked to environmental factors – some have wondered if assisted reproduction and ASD were associated. There has even been some concern that some forms of assisted production could possibly even cause autism-associated genetic events.
Researchers have looked at this question via a number of epidemiological studies, with mostly reassuring results; however, there has been some conflicting evidence and no genetic studies have been done…until now.
From a large sample of almost 2,000 children with autism, we examined the use of assisted reproduction and any association with autism-associated genetic events, publishing our results recently in the journal Fertility and Sterility. What we found was a completely negative result: no statistically significant differences in copy number variations or autism-associated gene-disrupting events were found when comparing ASD patients exposed to assisted reproduction with those not exposed to assisted reproduction.
Furthermore, in the context of assisted reproduction, maternal age was identified as a potential contributor to ASD-associated genetic events, meaning the characteristics of parents using assisted reproduction (not assisted reproduction itself) may explain any association previously found in epidemiological studies between ASD and assisted reproduction.
We believe our findings are important because when people consider assisted reproduction they often have many questions and anxieties. Anything that can be done to help alleviate those worries is worthwhile. We hope that the above findings can help provide some valuable information to interested parents.
Of course, it is possible that for some families having a child with ASD wouldn’t be a concern. I personally know many people with ASD who have happy, full lives and their unique perspective on the world through ASD only makes them more wonderful people. Nonetheless, there can be significant challenges in dealing with ASD.
In sum, we hope that our study along with the existing epidemiological work will offer a reassuring “no” to any future parents who are concerned assisted reproduction could result in having a child with ASD.
Access the full article at: Ackerman S, Wenegrat J, Rettew D, Althoff R, Bernier R. No increase in autism-associated genetic events in children conceived by assisted reproduction. Fertil Steril. 2014 May 17. pii: S0015-0282(14)00366-5. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2014.04.020. [Epub ahead of print]
Sean Ackerman, MD, is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow at the University of Vermont Medical Center.